“Godzilla” is back.
For, like, the 30th time. But we're assured that this one will be something special in the 60-year history of the giant radioactive lizard's adventures. Or, at least, a decent movie.
“Our attempt at Legendary is to make stuff that is commercial, but elevated,” says Legendary Pictures' Chairman and CEO Thomas Tull, who has produced “The Dark Knight” trilogy, “Man of Steel,” the “Hangover” and “300” movies and, now, a $150 million “Godzilla.”
“We make mass audience films, but we're proud of our body of work,” Tull continues. “Because we're such huge fans of Godzilla, we wanted to take it seriously and, hopefully, make a version of this that would make other fans excited and, maybe, create some new Godzilla fans along the way.”
The big guy's fans have been legion, of course, ever since Toho Studios personified Japan's nuclear trauma with the cheesy but resonant 1954 man-in-a-rubber suit “Godzilla.” Since then, the Japanese studio has pumped out some 27 sequels, reboots, team-ups and the like, none of which was ever mistaken for quality works of cinema.
Roland Emmerich's 1998 “Godzilla” had Hollywood millions and production values aplenty, but like many of its Japanese counterparts, it elicited more derision than delight from critics and audiences.
Gareth Edwards — the English filmmaker who landed the new “Godzilla” gig on the strength of his only previous feature-directing effort, the $500,000 movie “Monsters” from 2010 — saw similarities between this opportunity and Legendary's greatest achievement.
“Probably an equivalent thing to this would be the Batman franchise,” Edwards reckons.
“With the exception of Tim Burton's films, the original Batman TV show was very campy and ‘Batman and Robin' and ‘Batman Forever' went off the rails a bit. It became kind of silly and lost its weight. Everyone sort of felt it was finished as a franchise. Then Chris Nolan came along, with the same studios I worked with on this, and he totally reinvented the whole thing,” Edwards says of the Legendary/Warner Bros.' “Batman Begins” director.
“From that point of view, Godzilla is an icon that everyone in the world recognizes, but their expectations are very low. For a filmmaker, that's a very attractive place to be starting. I mean, it's not like we're trying to remake ‘Casablanca.' We're dealing with something that's much loved, but that people want to see the good version of.”
Besides superior digital effects — which Edwards has excelled at creating not only for “Monsters” but in his earlier television work — a moving story accompanies all the mass destruction Godzilla and certain others wreak on Japan, Las Vegas, Hawaii and San Francisco in the new movie.
The plot follows the efforts of an obsessed nuclear scientist (“Breaking Bad's” Bryan Cranston) and his Navy officer son (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) to uncover the truth about these raging creatures and limit their damage.
Though this movie no longer represents the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic blasts that the first Godzilla movie did, the shadow of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster does stretch over the current incarnation.
“He was a big monster, dinosaury-looking thing; that's all that I knew,” Taylor-Johnson, 23, says of his familiarity with Godzilla before taking the job. “I never knew what significance it had to Japan when it first came out in 1954. Gareth explained that to me, and I was quite moved that this icon came from that.
“This mythical monster has been kind of watered down all this time, and we've tried to bring it back to its roots and embrace that message of nature's beast responding to radioactive pollution.”
The new “Godzilla” team had their way with some aspects of the filmic mythology, though.
“The idea was to treat Godzilla like a real animal, and that maybe he had appeared near Japan 60 years ago, but nobody took a picture,” Edwards says. “Everyone could describe him, though, and through that description, they went and made all the movies we know.
“In our film, you're going to see the animal that they witnessed for the first time. So you can correlate him: ‘Oh, I see how they arrived at the guy in the suit based on that description.' But that gives us a license to refine him a little bit and make him as realistic as we can.”
Too realistic for our high-caloric age, according to some Japanese critics who've complained that Edwards' Godzilla looks like he needs to go on a diet.
“I say he's not fat, he's just big-boned,” the director deadpans. “It's comments like that that give these giant monsters an image complex. It's what gets them angry in the first place.”
People were, understandably, not angry but concerned when Legendary tapped Edwards to direct since his experience with special effects had been limited to creating them on his laptop.
“As you can imagine, I was asked ‘Why are you making this movie with Gareth Edwards?' continually inside of Hollywood and outside of Hollywood,” Tull says. “It really boils down to a couple of things. One, we wanted to come at this with a completely different perspective and voice, and not just do the paint-by-numbers version that, I think, everybody had in their head.
“Two, I was blown away by ‘Monsters.' Given the fact that he made it for $500,000 on his laptop, it was pretty incredible. I was very impressed with the intimacy of that film, and as we spent a lot of time together before actually hiring him, I became more and more impressed.”
For his “Godzilla,” Edwards had vastly greater resources than he was used to, including such “Lord of the Rings” veterans as Andy Serkis and multi-Oscar winning visual effects supervisor Jim Rygiel.
That was all great, Edwards says. The increased responsibility that comes with bigger budgets, though, wasn't.
“The differences are really psychological, in that you just feel a lot more pressure,” the director says of his jump in production scale. “And you know the world, at some point, is going to see this film. It's not going to disappear quietly into the night.
“It was a lot easier than I expected to block out all of those thoughts while I was making the film and try to pretend that I was just making some kind of personal, passion project for myself,” Edwards adds.
“Then what happens is, you finish the film, and months later I'm walking around New York and you see ‘Godzilla' billboards when you're getting a cup of coffee and animated trailers on the subway. Then you think ... it was an illusion that the project might never get out there.”
Follow Bob Strauss on Twitter: @bscritic